Category Archives: Music — 1960s

The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 8: Sell Outs and Rave Ups

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

This is the final entry in the Spotify Chronicles…and it’s a long one — it even has an “epilogue” — but I think it’s interesting enough to justify it’s length. 

If you were listening to BBC Radio in, say, 1964, you’d never know there was a musical revolution underway. The staid, stuffy British Broadcasting Corporation offered listeners what they high-handedly judged was “good for them” (rather than what they may have “wanted.”) A slate of news, educational programs, children’s shows, classical music, and “light entertainment.” Pop music was considered the latter, and had to share the category with comedy programs, quiz shows, and variety shows. So, pop music got about six hours a week, and pop music records got still fewer (Musicians’ Union rules strictly limited “needle time” on broadcast radio). Many performers were invited to play “live in studio” (resulting in a glut of CD-era “Live At The BBC” collections put out by every major British band from back in the day). Everything was presented by very proper announcers reading from carefully prepared scripts — commercial-free. It was government-owned and funded by listeners paying a small annual licensing fee.

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Some entrepreneurial types decided to meet market demand by pumping out a steady diet of pop, rock, and soul records from ships moored in international waters, just over three miles off the British coast. These “pirate radio” stations lifted the entire format of American Top 40 radio — hip, freewheeling DJs, loud jingles, brash promos, and actual commercials (!) The signals weren’t always perfect (although on a good night they could reach over 12 million British listeners), and the rocking waves sometimes caused the records to skip, but pirate radio stations like Radio London and Radio Caroline exposed the Brits to all the latest American acts, and gave an important boost to up-and-coming British groups like the Yardbirds and the Who.

The British government passed the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act in August 1967, effectively shutting down the pirates. Luckily, the BBC had seen the light and re-organized their radio division, launching Radio 1 as an all-popular music format…and hiring many of the old pirate DJs. It wasn’t quite the same, though. The frisson and excitement associated with the pirates’ rebellious flaunting of authority was missing. 

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Which brings me to the Who. In 1967, after a few years of being a reliable singles act in Britain, the Who was finally gaining an American audience, after noteworthy performances at the Monterey Pop Festival in June and a literally explosive appearance on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in September. At a transitional time when albums were starting to eclipse singles as the preferred form of rock expression, the band went back into the studio that autumn to complete their third LP (begun in piecemeal fashion through that spring and summer), knowing it would have to outclass their first two if they were to continue their climb to the top. These recording sessions coincided with the snuffing out of the pirate radio stations. The Who decided to make an album in their honor to thank them for all they had done (the Who were favorites of the pirate DJs, and got played a lot).

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Monterey Pop Festival, June 1967

The result was my all-time favorite album by the Who — The Who Sell Out, released in the waning days of 1967, and a pop-art masterpiece. The album’s concept was that it would replicate a pirate radio station broadcast — right down to the jingles, promos, and commercials. (The initial intention was to actually sell advertising space between songs.) 

The material that chief songwriter Pete Townshend came up with for this set is melancholy and yearning, eschewing the band’s usual heavy sound. Drummer Keith Moon’s typical wild-man flailing is kept on a short leash. The love songs “I Can’t Reach You” and “Our Love Was” have moments of ethereal beauty, and showcase the Who’s underrated harmony-singing skills. The delicate “Sunrise” is just Towshend and a 12-string acoustic. In fact, Townshend’s thin, fragile voice gets more leading roles on Sell Out than any other Who album. Even when usual lead vocalist Roger Daltrey appears with his more powerful “rock” voice, he’s alternating or singing in unison with Townshend, as on the organ-driven “Relax” and the irresistibly melodic duet “Mary Anne with the Shaky Hand,” about a girl with a certain skill that raises more than just eyebrows. Two songs, “Tattoo” and “Odorono,” are perfectly conceived little short stories, with dramatic arcs and sympathetic characters. “Tattoo” is a coming-of-age tale about two teen brothers getting their first ink, and “Odorono” is, well…read on.

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The iconic Sell Out album cover. No one bothered to warm up the refrigerated beans — Roger Daltrey came down with pneumonia

Bassist John Entwistle contributes another macabre fantasy character vignette, “Silas Stingy” (similar to his earlier “Boris the Spider” and “Whiskey Man”). The album closes with “Rael,” a sketchy condensement of a much longer “rock opera” about a dystopian conflict between the Communist Chinese and Israel in the distant future of 1999. The long-form rock narrative/musical story format was something Towshend had been tinkering with since the nine-minute “A Quick One (While He’s Away)” on their previous album. (As for the under-six minute “Rael,” Townshend lamented “No one will ever know what it means, it’s been squeezed up too tightly to make sense.”) Some musical themes from “Rael” would be recycled for their next album, Tommy (1969), where the rock opera concept achieved its full fruition.

There are two exceptions to the overall gentleness displayed on Sell Out. The opening track “Armenia City in the Sky,” was written by Townshend protege Speedy Keen (later of cult favorite Thunderclap Newman) and performed by the Who as a trippy, dissonant, thumping wall of sound and echoes. Then there’s the album’s centerpiece, “I Can See For Miles,” in which all the trademark moves of the Who — full-cry volume, Daltery’s menacing snarl, Entwistle’s bass guitar rumblings, Towshend’s windmill guitar-thrashing, and Moon’s cataclysmic, cannon-fire drumming — are on conspicuous display in a proto-metal howl of betrayal and recrimination. (Townshend’s bragging in an interview that “I Can See For Miles” was the “loudest, rawest, dirtiest” song ever recorded goaded Paul McCartney into writing “Helter Skelter.” Check and mate.)

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Interspersed between these songs are all the trappings of a pirate radio broadcast. The promos and jingles are the real deal, from actual Radio London broadcasts. When the idea of selling commercial space on the album quickly fell through, the Who concocted and performed original ads. They vary in length and style. Some are fragments lasting a few seconds (including spots for Rotosound guitar strings, the Charles Atlas workout program, and the Who’s favorite after-hours hangout, the Speakeasy Club). Some, such as “Heinz Baked Beans” and “Medac” (promoting a pimple cream) are catchy, minute-long novelty songs. And one was a full-length, heartbreaking tale of ambition and rejection, set to one of Towenshend’s most beautiful, lilting melodies…all to advertise the underarm deodorant, Odorono.

The Who Sell Out is often regarded as one of the first “concept” albums. But for whatever reason, the Who opted to only use the “pirate radio broadcast” concept through the first half of the album. Side two, with the exception of Entwistle’s “Medac” song/commercial, has no ads or jingles. This was rectified with an excellent 1995 CD reissue where the idea was finally carried through to the end of the album by adding some more Radio London jingles, repeating some slight variations of side one ads, using some outtake ads the Who recorded but didn’t use for the album, and digging up some radio ads they recorded earlier that year intended for actual broadcast. When I speak of Sell Out as my favorite Who album, it’s really this CD reissue I’m thinking of, where the concept runs to the finish.

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The Yardbirds fascinated me as soon as I heard of them. Here was a band that provided a launching pad for three of the greatest British guitarists ever — Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. They weren’t in the band all at the same time, of course. The universe couldn’t handle that degree of awesomeness without tearing itself asunder. (Beck and Page did overlap for a few brief months.) Clapton left early, and Page came late, leaving Beck in the lead guitarist slot through most of what could be considered the Yardbirds’ “classic” period.

R-4237397-1447215065-2562.jpegThe Yardbirds discography was a mess for a long time, their relatively small output licensed over and over again for a parade of cheap reissues. My first Yardbirds CD was one of these “budget label” compilations. Part of Pair Records’ “Best of British Rock” series, the cover had a photo of the Beck-era band, with Clapton very clumsily pasted into the image so it looked like he and Beck were in the band together. Nowadays, the band’s digital-era discography has been squared away considerably. All of their pre-“Roger the Engineer” (see below) output can fit easily on two discs.

If there’s a downside to listening to the Yardbirds, it’s that every pre-“Roger” Yardbirds recording currently available is of dubious audio quality. It’s partly due to lack of access to the original masters, as a variety of companies have claims over various recordings, and it’s said that EMI is still refusing to turn over certain master tapes to compilers due to an unpaid studio bill from 1965 (that may be nothing more than an “urban rock legend” at this point). And it’s partly (maybe mostly) due to the recordings being made in a hurry and on the cheap in the first place.

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 7: The King, Queen, and a Prince

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020.

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

As I add my little autobiographical notes, try not to get chronological whiplash as I wildly veer back and forth between modern-day, my college years, my middle school years, and pre-school…

Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers were the best American band of the last four decades. Fight me.

Notice I didn’t say “greatest.” They had no interest creating moments of “sweeping grandeur” or delivering Major Statements. I didn’t say “innovative,” either. Several bands can probably top them on that. No, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers simply settled for being the best, especially when you consider the length of their career. (Yes, best vs. greatest is a distinction I make in my own mind, but I think you know what I mean.)

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They were always getting left out of the conversation because they made it look too easy. Whenever there would be debates about “best bands,” and people would be throwing around their R.E.M.s and Radioheads, it would always be up to me to say, “What about Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers?” There was always a short pause, then a lot of nodding and people murmuring “ohhh, yeah…” They were never #1 on anyone’s list, and often forgotten about…but no one could deny the goods they brought to the table, year in and year out.

Petty’s first two albums without the Heartbreakers — Full Moon Fever (1989) and Wildflowers (1994) also generated tons of favorites. In fact, the casual listener might be more familiar with Petty’s solo work than his Heartbreakers stuff. “Free Fallin’,” “Runnin’ Down A Dream,” “I Won’t Back Down,” “You Don’t Know How It Feels,” and several other radio staples all came from his solo work. Wildflowers is probably one of my top ten albums of all time (I haven’t ranked them in quite awhile), and Petty was working on an expanded, deluxe, remastered re-issue at the time of his death. (It finally came out on October 16th of last year.)

I’m convinced any doubters would be turned into Petty fans if they took the time to sit through Peter Bogdanovich’s four-hour documentary Runnin’ Down A Dream, perhaps the greatest (now I will say “greatest”) rock documentary ever if you have anything approaching an attention span. Behind his laidback demeanor and crooked grin, Petty ran the Heartbreaks like a benevolent dictator, an iron fist in a velvet glove. Always collaborative, always respectful…but undoubtedly always in charge. He had a steely resolve and a stubborn streak, but was one of the most principled and generous people in the rock & roll pantheon. Lead guitarist Mike Campbell was the “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers — underrated and overlooked, never getting his due as one of the best guitarists of the modern era. Keyboardist Benmont Tench was valued for his keen wit, his unerring taste, and reliable bullshit detector, not to mention his formidable, classically-trained musicianship. 

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To my (incredibly over-biased) ears, even their lowest moments never dipped too far below their high bar. Yes, the loose concept album The Last DJ (2002) didn’t really coalesce all that well, Mojo (2010) suffered from bloat, and Let Me Up (I’ve Had Enough) (1987) — the lowest of their not-that-low — sounded exhausted even in its title…but that’s about it. Three clunkers in forty years. I’ll take it. (OK, four clunkers — Petty’s third and final solo album, 2006’s Highway Companion, didn’t quite do it for me.)

Anyway, Tom Petty is really the founder of our little feast here. His death in October of 2017 spurred me to sign up to Spotify and begin laboring over my in-tribute playlist. He is one of the few artists to earn “100 song” status, and it’s still the playlist I’m proudest of — the perfect blend of major hits, deep album cuts, live tracks, obscurities, and side-project stuff. 

huge_avatarAs much as I hate the trite term, seeing Tom Petty in concert was on my “bucket list.” I somehow kept missing him. I’d seen the Stones (twice). I’d seen Dylan (twice). I’d seen the Who (still with Entwistle). I’d seen McCartney. Petty was the only empty spot on my trophy shelf. The closest I came was when the woman I was dating in 2006 got us tickets, but we broke up before the concert. She ended up going with her ex-husband. So it goes.

For his 40th Anniversary Tour, I was gifted tickets by my wife Shannon’s family as an early birthday present. Just in time, too. Petty had been hinting this would be the last time he toured on this scale. The show was going to be at Sacramento’s brand-new Golden 1 Center, and was scheduled for August 25, 2017 — then was cancelled at the literal last minute. My in-laws were already on their way up from the Bay Area to join us when we got the alert on our phone — “As Tom Petty heals from laryngitis and bronchitis, he has been advised to take additional days off before performing.” My in-laws had to settle for dinner and a movie.

The show was re-scheduled for September 1. The in-laws made the trek east into the Sacramento Valley once more. This time, they were plunged into a pit of hellfire. I was afraid the respiratory-challenged Petty would cancel again — the air was soupy and almost unbreathable. Raging wildfires are now a seasonal event here in California, and we had a lively one going up in Butte County not too far away. The temperature hovered around 100 as the sun set, visible as a fiercely-glowing coal on the western horizon through layers of gray ash. Several people milling around the exterior of the Golden 1 Arena were actually wearing masks — an unusual and almost comical sight…at the time.

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The Golden 1 Center, Sacramento, CA

Settling into my arena seat with a beer in hand, the conditions outside were forgotten. The opening act was a group of young Petty proteges from L.A., the Shelters. The sound was horrendous, but those kids were clearly having a blast being a rock & roll band, leaping around the stage and striking poses for the still-filling arena. 

Once they wrapped up and cleared the stage, it wasn’t more than a few minutes before the house lights dimmed. (That’s what I love about attending concerts with an audience that skews, shall we say, older. They always start on time, because everyone wants to be in bed by ten-thirty.) Heartbreakers drummer Steve Ferrone came out to huge applause. He settled himself onto the drum stool, and gave his bass drum a few tentative kicks. I could feel the reverberation in my breastbone. Oh, this was going to be loud. The the rest of the Heartbreakers wandered onto the stage, putting down water bottles and picking up instruments. Then, in an instant, the house lights dropped altogether, the stage was awash in green and blue lights, and the Man Himself was before us — heavily bearded and in shades, blasting out the opening chords to “Rockin’ Around (With You)” from their 1976 debut album.

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Onstage at the Golden 1 — September 1, 2017

It was definitely a “greatest hits” type set, and fully half the songs were from his solo albums, a testament to their overall popularity. “Don’t Come Around Here No More” closed with an appropriately psychedelic extended freak-out, and Mojo’s “I Should Have Known It” pulsed with new life, re-interpreted as a Clapton-style blues guitar showcase for Mike Campbell. The sound was still a little muddy (basketball arenas are not concert halls), but the power and authority of the performance was towering. I emerged into the dark, smoky air deliriously happy, the encore “American Girl” still ringing in my ears. I looked forward to seeing Petty again someday in what he said would be his new concert incarnation — smaller, more intimate venues, stripped-down, Deep Cuts.

Petty played four more shows after Sacramento — the KAABOO Festival in Del Mar, then three nights at the Hollywood Bowl. Then he died on October 2, 2017 from a cardiac arrest triggered by an overdose of pain medication. The night I saw him, he was likely in agony the whole time from a fractured hip, but soldiered on and played a great show. He kept quiet about the hip injury in order to finish the tour and keep his band and his road crew employed.

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(Pointless aside — according to my research, it is more stylistically correct to keep the article “the” before a band name lowercase unless it starts the sentence. It’s “the Beatles,” not “The Beatles,” despite what 9 out of 10 websites and even many professional writers go with. So I’ve been sticking to that rule. Unless the band name follows an ampersand. I don’t care what’s stylistically correct, “Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers” just looks wrong to my tiny mind. It’ll be “Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers” here.)

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 5: The Hollies Get Their Due (and Satan Pays a Call)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020.

Exploring just a few of my Spotify playlists in roughly alphabetical order.

(Despite these Chronicles being based around the concept of online streaming of music, I’m starting to notice them developing into a love letter to the CD era.)

File under Still Making New Discoveries of Old Stuff…the Hollies. 

44168615._SX318_If there’s one website that is more rambling, disjointed, and long-winded than this one, it’s Alan’s Album Archives. (“If A Review Doesn’t Reach 7,000 Words, We’re Disappointed.”) He has even spun it into a little cottage industry, self-publishing $7 e-books that collect all his reviews and essays on a particular artist. For the most part, his tastes run parallel to mine (and when we diverge, we widely diverge), so I happily bought a few to support a fellow enthusiast. I don’t think even Alan himself would deny he needs an editor for simple fact-checking. He mishears lyrics (sometimes to hilarious effect), struggles with understanding American vernacular (not his fault, he’s a Brit), mixes up names and timelines with annoying frequency, and I know he knows better. His stuff is just so long even he doesn’t want to go back and read it a second time. His Beatles book is a non-stop litany of glaring factual errors. In fact, Kindle tells me I’ve only made it 42% through it. I keep trying, I make it through a couple of pages, then come across another howler and have to slam it shut again. And he doesn’t seem sure what a pedal steel guitar actually is. (No, that’s not a “pedal steel” on “I Need You,” it’s Harrison playing his 12-string Rickenbacker with a volume-swell pedal*. I mean, come on, Alan…)

In both Alan’s Beatles and Stones books, he mentions the Hollies on every few pages in the same breath as the two great titans of British rock…as if they were somehow equal or something. (“If not the greatest band of the 1960s then arguably the most consistently great band of the 1960s” made me blurt-laugh out loud, not only for its hyperbole, but for its weird semi-redundancy.) Were they actually comparable?

Short answer: Not even close. Long answer…read on.

The Hollies consisted of Graham Nash (rhythm guitar, vocals), Allan Clarke (vocals, harmonica), Tony Hicks (lead guitar, vocals), Eric Haydock (bass), and Bobby Elliott (drums). Bernie Calvert replaced Haydock on bass in mid-1966. All were very good instrumentalists — Hicks was a particularly nimble lead guitarist for the early 60s beat-group era (I love almost all of his solos, even if the song itself is a dog), Haydock pioneered the use of the six-string bass, and Elliott’s tumbling fills kicked pretty damn hard. The three vocalists were each capable of taking the lead (Clarke’s soulful, mid-range voice most often), but harmonies were their trademark. 

The Hollies shared a label (Parlophone) and a studio (Abbey Road) with the Beatles. Beatles producer George Martin’s assistant, Ron Richards, was the Hollies’ long-time producer. Richards had a good ear, a solid technical background, and worked hard to present the Hollies as best he knew how. But he was not a musician as Martin was, and he was not a boundary-pusher. 

Maybe due to this too-close-for-comfort proximity, the Beatles themselves never cared much for the Hollies — Lennon in particular thought they were saccharine and twee (the Beatles would never stoop to doing a song as stupefyingly cringe-worthy as “Fifi the Flea”), and copied the Beatles’ three-part harmonies a little too slavishly. Harrison said they were “all right musically” (meaning they were skilled players, which they were, see above), but “did their recordings like session men who’ve just got together in a studio without ever seeing each other before.” A little harsh, but yes, there was sometimes a lack of cohesion. And he called their cover of his “If I Needed Someone” “soul-less.” Which it sort of was, but give them credit for the audacity of recording a Beatles song before the original was released (presumably Ron Richards got them an advance copy of the song to work from, and at least two Hollies were under the very mistaken impression that Harrison had written it specifically for them). 

Instead of blazing their own trail, the Hollies seem preoccupied with giving listeners what they think they would want, which is admirable in a way, but not a Path to Greatness. It’s ironic that their second album was called In the Hollies Style, because the Hollies had no discernible style for most of the Sixties, and spent the decade casting around — at times desperately — for a unique voice. 

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Like most early British Invasion bands, the first couple of Hollies albums were filled with watered-down, very Anglicized R&B covers, but they certainly didn’t lack for energy. By the time of their third album, original compositions began sneaking in, which was good news. The bad news was that a lot of their early originals weren’t all that good, making their albums very patchy indeed.

The Hollies were irrevocably a singles band. And they were great singles. From their third single (a raucous cover of Maurice Williams & The Zodiacs’ “Stay”) in late ‘63 through to “Listen To Me” at the end of ‘68, the Hollies ripped through nuggets of 45 rpm ear candy at a rate of about three per year, including two of the Holy Bee’s all-time favorites — “Bus Stop” and “Carrie Anne.” And most of the B-sides were just as good as the As. To be fair, until Tommy, the mighty Who were “just” a singles band too.

They never really took off in the U.S. at that time, except for the Top 5 “Bus Stop” in the summer of ‘66. Just when things were starting to get interesting (their two 1967 albums, Evolution and Butterfly, are quite good forays into lightweight psychedelia), just when their original songwriting was coming into focus — co-founder and band visionary Graham Nash quit, bored by the band’s old-fashioned traditionalist attitude, and turned off by their showbizzy audience pandering. (The first album after he left was The Hollies Sing Dylan.) He moved out to California and became part of the three-headed ego monster known as Crosby, Stills & Nash, who would stop squabbling every seven or eight years to bore us with another Laurel Canyon soft-rock yawnfest.

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The Hollies soldiered on (with former Swinging Blue Jean Terry Sylvester in Nash’s place), and finally found American success with syrupy, mawkish ballads like “He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother,” and “The Air That I Breathe.” Their highest-charting U.S. single was “Long, Cool Woman in a Black Dress,” such a blatant rip-off of Creedence Clearwater Revival that many people to this day don’t know that it’s not actually CCR yammering about “working for the FBI” with “whiskey bottles piling high” over swamp-rock guitar licks. (Credit to Clarke and Hicks for combining to form a single John Fogerty with a fair degree of accuracy.) 

So…no, the Hollies could not match the flat-out genius of the Beatles, nor the dark, menacing magnetism of the Stones, nor even the fractured, intermittent brilliance of the Kinks. But in exploring these questions, I grew to like the Hollies much more than I thought I would, and ended up giving them a playlist — but only through the Nash years. If I never hear “The Air That I Breathe” again, it will be too soon.

When I was doing my old iPod playlists a decade ago, I learned a valuable lesson about two important artists: I don’t need any more Billy Joel or Elton John than what is available on a good, solid, well-compiled two-disc best-of. The gold standard of that format were the “Essential” sets. Remember those? Sony used to do ‘em back in the CD era, and any major artist who is or has been on a Sony-owned label — which is about a third of them (Columbia, RCA, Epic, Legend, several more) — have one. Almost all of them were double discs, and I always thought they were very thoughtfully put together.

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Many will argue, but I did not find a lot of unheralded gems buried in John’s or Joel’s albums. Their hits were undeniable monsters, but their obscurities are probably obscure for a reason. 

Someone once told a story on a podcast — it may have been NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour — about meeting & interviewing Elton John in his luxurious hotel suite several years back. Elton’s management hinted that Elton would be happy to play him a song after the interview. The intrepid young podcaster, wishing to impress Elton, picked something from side two of Madman Across the Water. When the song was requested, Elton roared “Are you fucking kidding me? I haven’t played that song since I recorded it forty-five fucking years ago! I have no idea how it goes!” He then proceeded to play “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” for presumably the 14,000th time.

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 4: “Heroes” and Rumours

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

Continuing a COVID-quaratined, too-much-free-time glance through just a few of my Spotify playlists, in roughly alphabetical order…

To re-iterate, a lot of this is adapted and expanded from material originally posted on the Idle Time messaging app in March/April. The Holy Bee is a proud recycler. That’s why when some artists are under review (eg. Fleetwood Mac), the focus is on a single song — it’s a holdover from our lengthy “Billboard Hot 100” discussions.

I have probably taken more abuse from the Idle Time guys for liking the Black Crowes than for any other reason. (Although just as I’m typing this, WH messaged me that he may never forgive me for putting “The Power of Love” by Huey Lewis & The News on our collaborative Best of the 80s playlist, which evidently represents a new low for my group contributions. WH has always been deeply suspicious of fun and joy.)

I’ve always admired and respected David Bowie more than I actually enjoyed listening to him. Something about his mannered vocals, his multiple irony-drenched personas, and cool detachment left me a little put off. He’s another one of those artists that everyone in my peer group loves, and I just don’t “get.” He’s obviously very gifted, eager to experiment, never bound by convention, but…I don’t seem to feel that special resonance that so many revel in. Camp theatricality was never my preferred mode of artistic expression. I gravitated toward the earnest straightforwarndess of Springsteen and Petty, or the evocative wordplay of Dylan.

I have been reading Rob Sheffield’s book-length fan letter On Bowie, and it brought things into a little more focus. What self-conscious adolescent hasn’t experimented with looks and personas, discarding them as soon as a new one springs to mind? Who hasn’t covered their desire to belong with a mask of cool detachment? Bowie was a voice for any kid who struggled with their identity, their sexuality, or the hurt of being an alienated outsider of any stripe. And maybe that’s why his material never resonated with me. Any teenager or young adult will have their moments (or months or years) of feeling rejected and unwanted, and I certainly did. But I was never cut to the core by any of it. My issues were few and I was always comfortable in my own skin. So Bowie was not speaking to me on that frequency.

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David Bowie first made a big national splash in the UK on a 1972 episode of Top of the Pops, performing “Starman.” Sheffield goes on to note all the young and impressionable kids watching that day: “Every future legend in the British Isles was tuned in. Morrissey was watching. So was Johnny Marr. Siouxsie was watching. Robert Smith was watching. Duran Duran were watching. So were Echo and the Bunnymen. Dave Gahan…Bauhaus. Jarvis Cocker. Jesus, Mary, and their Chain…”

To a name, all of them artists I am either lukewarm on, or really don’t much like at all. That’s what Bowie’s legacy has been to me.

But what of the music itself? What better time than during a pandemic-enforced, in-home exile to give Bowie’s catalog a re-listen? Wait here.

[Three days later.]

OK, done. I decided not to start at the very beginning, but jumped right in at what Sheffield considers his peak run — 1975’s Young Americans through 1980’s Scary Monsters, and then circled back to his earlier material.

I have mixed feelings about Young Americans. David Sanborn’s attention-hog of a saxophone is all over this pastiche of “Philly soul.” (Both Springsteen and Bowie are guilty of being waaay too in love with the saxophone, which I have an unshakeable prejudice against, at least on songs recorded by white dudes after 1963. What’s a way to make an otherwise good song sound totally stupid and corny? Throw on a big, dumb ol’ sax solo.) The cover of “Across the Universe” makes me cringe — Bowie spends the whole tuneless song sounding as if he’s got something unpleasant caught in his throat. When the album does coalesce, it showcases two of my all-time favorite Bowie songs — the excellent title track, and the equally-excellent  #1 single “Fame” (a collaboration with John Lennon, who must have at least tacitly endorsed Bowie’s “Across the Universe.”). Then there’s “Fascination.” Something about “Fascination” made me prick up my ears, and I couldn’t put my finger on it, then I realized it was a re-working of Stevie Wonder’s “Supersition.” Bowie is a musical magpie, taking shiny bits and pieces from other sources, and adapting them into his own vision.

I found myself enjoying almost every track on Station To Station, which is frequently described as the transitional album between the glam/soul style of his early 70s work to the Krautrock and electronica-influenced “Berlin Trilogy” of the late 70s, when the cocaine-addled Bowie fled the L.A. scene to get his head together in the austere German capital.

The Berlin Trilogy (Low and “Heroes,” both 1977, and 1979’s Lodger) represents Bowie at his most sonically experimental (for now). All three albums utilized the same core rhythm section, which never failed to play with urgency and a peculiar, visceral crunch. Brian Eno provided his trademark spacey keyboard texturing. On the first two albums, there is a clear divide between side one — all propulsion, energy, and mini-hooks — and side two, a sequence of ambient soundscapes with minimal vocals.

If you’re like me, and even the words “ambient soundscape” inspire an inner eye roll, at least it can be said that Berlin Trilogy’s ambient soundscapes are probably the best of that particular style you’re going to hear. There are nice world music flourishes, and the momentum never wanders off into ethereal noodling.

Lodger doesn’t adhere to that format quite as much, and I feel it’s the weakest of the trilogy overall. Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), recorded back in London and New York, ups the ante on the world music flavor and the artiness of the “art rock,” and coats it with a commercial sheen that foreshadows the next album. 

I extended my initial listening one album past Scary Monsters to 1983’s Let’s Dance, where Bowie’s shifting personas finally coalesce into their final form — the confident, hit-making, MTV-friendly pop star in the natty suit and loosened tie. Produced by Nile Rodgers of Chic, Let’s Dance was made to sound great on the radio, and spin off multiple singles. There were the inevitable cries of “sell out” from the type of unpleasant person who likes to cry “sell out,” but this may have been Bowie’s master stroke. And there was nowhere to go but down. 

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At this point, I backtracked to the start of Bowie’s career. His actual debut album, 1967’s David Bowie was considered such a colossal embarrassment by all parties involved that he named his 1969 follow-up…David Bowie, as if to erase the existence of the previous version. The second incarnation of David Bowie, an acoustic-textured blend of hippie folk sounds and wordy prog-rock lyrics, was re-released in 1972 and re-named after its title track (and far and away its best song): Space Oddity. 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World is more of the same, with an overall darker tone, more electric guitar, and a heavier emphasis on the bass end. (Nirvana did a terrific cover version of the title song.)

Hunky Dory (1971) trades acoustic guitar for jaunty piano as its primary instrument, and showcases an entirely new cabaret-pop style that gave Bowie (“Space Oddity” aside) his first clutch of truly memorable statements — “Changes,” “Oh! You Pretty Things,” “Life On Mars?,” among others.

Then came his “glam rock” trilogy: The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars (1972), Aladdin Sane (1973), and Diamond Dogs (1974), which made Bowie a global superstar. (1973’s Pin-Ups was an all-covers album, and interesting in its own way.) Ziggy is a true concept album, with a loose narrative based around the messianic title character. The two follow-ups abandon a cohesive narrative, and are instead a series of observational sketches seen through the eyes of a Ziggyesque “alien outsider” character. (Ziggy himself “died” onstage each night during Bowie’s ‘73 shows, and was retired at the end of the tour.) Each album rocked a little harder than the one before. The sound of Ziggy was still essentially the bottom-heavy folk-rock of Sold The World, cut through with Mick Ronson’s stinging lead guitar, but by Dogs the sound was full-on hard rock. 

I saved the long decline (and bittersweet comeback) for last. Bowie himself pretty much disavowed all his ‘80s material after Let’s Dance. He threw in the towel on solo work and formed a four-piece, no-frills hard rock band called Tin Machine in 1989, which seemed like a great idea…if only they’d had any decent songs. They disbanded after only three years and two pretty bad albums. His solo work in the ‘90s and early ‘00s was even more experimental than in his prime, fully embracing industrial, drum-and-bass, and electronica, but it was often unfocused and unmemorable. A heart attack in 2004 sent him into retirement…

…or so it was thought. In 2013, he put out the recorded-in-secret The Next Day with no promotion or fanfare whatsoever. Re-purposing the cover art of “Heroes,” Bowie sounds jolted alive, and presents us with a cohesive, coherent art-rock album that could easily stand alongside his classics, and includes “The Stars (Are Out Tonight),” his best song in thirty years. Its 2016 follow-up, Blackstar, carries the burden of being the album written and recorded as Bowie was fading away from cancer. He died two days after its release, and naturally, all of his fans cherish this as his final gift to them.

And here’s where I make the blasphemous confession that will forever bar me from true Bowie fandom: I don’t like Blackstar all that much. 

I enjoyed my deep dive into the Bowie discography, and I think I made a pretty good playlist, but the experience didn’t move the needle very much on how I feel about him. Admiration and respect, always, but it’s not passionate love. We can just be friends.

Anything that needs saying about the Byrds, well…I already said it, at my usual length, here and here.

When Johnny Cash re-emerged in the ‘90s thanks to his work with producer Rick Rubin, everyone was retroactively horrified that his record company of 25 years, Columbia, heartlessly dropped the legend in the mid-1980s. Having listened to his early ‘80s output, however, I can only wonder what took them so long. I still love Cash, but navigating his post-Folsom Prison, pre-Rubin discography was a Sisephyan task of getting through an album full of unfunny novelty songs, ponderous spoken-word narrations, turgid gospel, and quasi-misogynist my-woman-is-my-property “love” songs. Then doing it all over again with the next album. Then you find a nugget like “Far Side Banks of the Jordan” on 1977’s little-remembered The Last Gunfighter Ballad, and it feels worth all the trouble.

The Clash…I don’t listen to them nearly as often as I should. Every time I choose to put them on, I’m always glad I did. I bought MMDG’s old Toyota Corolla off him in 2007. He had covered the rear window and bumper with stickers. Tastefully monochromatic, mind you, not garish, and aligned with geometric precision, but it was a very guy-in-his-20s look, and I was by then in my (very) early 30s. So I scraped them all off — except the Clash, which retained pride of place in the back left of the rear window for as long as I had the car. 

The Last Gang In Town purports to be the Clash’s “definitive biography,” but the last ⅔ of the book is author Marcus Gray needing a bucket to carry the amount of butt-hurt he exhibits because the Clash turned out not to be actual committed socialist revolutionaries after all, but just a great rock band.

Creedence…I do not need all nine minutes of “Susie Q.” Luckily, the radio-edit version is available. I do not need a single second of their eleven-minute version of “I Heard It Through The Grapevine…”

[The next day.]

OK, I caved and put “Grapevine” on the list. They build a pretty hypnotic groove.

Bob Dylan…he released a seventeen-minute song early during this quarantine…there was a snippet of Idle Time chatter about it on the IM app…

BC: …which features the lyrics “rub-a-dub-dub, it’s a murder most foul.”

WH: He’s still got it.

Once you get into the Beatles, it’s a pretty short hop to getting into the Byrds, and from there, an even shorter hop to Dylan. 

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.3: Even More on The Beatles’ U.S. Albums, and How the Young Holy Bee Became a Beatles Collector

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The new year 1966 dawns. A suitable Beatles film project could not be agreed upon, so there was no soundtrack recording or movie shooting to take up three months of their time, giving them their first extended break in years. They vacationed, relaxed, gave interviews, and had an infamous photo session in March, where they posed for Robert Whitaker’s camera clad in butcher’s smocks, draped in pieces of raw meat and clutching dismembered baby dolls. 

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Then it was back to Abbey Road in April for the next round of recording, which would last until June, once again cutting sixteen tracks — fourteen for the album and two for a stand-alone single.

Tracks as yet “un-albumized” by Capitol will appear in bold, even if they’ve had a Capitol single release.

Capitol, as usual, was eager to get more product onto U.S. shelves in the summertime, when teens with summer jobs did most of their spending. (In both ‘65 and ‘66, they put out an album in June and an album in August.) Still unreleased on a Capitol album were There’s A Place, Misery, From Me To You, Sie Liebt Dich, Can’t Buy Me Love, A Hard Day’s Night, and I Should Have Known Better. In the fast-moving world of 60s pop music, these were now “oldies,” never under serious consideration at this point, even for the most careless Capitol throw-together. Of a more recent vintage, they were sitting on I’m Down, Yesterday, and Act Naturally from the Help! sessions, the We Can Work It Out / Day Tripper single, and the UK Rubber Soul leftovers Drive My Car, Nowhere Man, What Goes On, and If I Needed Someone. For some reason, Capitol decided to totally disregard I’m Down, and put it out of the running forever after. I have no idea why. It’s a great song, and the Beatles themselves obviously liked it, selecting it to be performed on The Ed Sullivan Show and using it as their big closing number in concert for two straight years. But Capitol nixed it, and decided they had only eight usable songs for the next album.

Which led to the now yearly tradition. Sometime in early May, Capitol contacted the Beatles for additional material. The band shipped over three finished tracks from their current work in progress — I’m Only Sleeping, Doctor Robert, and And Your Bird Can Sing. All were Lennon songs, as he was the only one to have any fully completed recordings at the time of the request. Paul was still tinkering with his material. (Actually, they had also finished Harrison’s Love You To, and a copy of the master was prepared, probably for shipment to Capitol, but it went unused. Its exotic Indian instrumentation would have been out of place among the straightforward pop-rock of Yesterday And Today, and was better-suited to the more experimental Revolver.)

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Yesterday And Today (June 15, 1966)

  1. Drive My Car (UK Rubber Soul)
  2. I’m Only Sleeping (UK Revolver)
  3. Nowhere Man (UK Rubber Soul)
  4. Doctor Robert (UK Revolver)
  5. Yesterday (UK Help!)
  6. Act Naturally (UK Help!)
  1. And Your Bird Can Sing (UK Revolver)
  2. If I Needed Someone (UK Rubber Soul)
  3. We Can Work It Out (single — double A-side with “Day Tripper”)
  4. What Goes On (UK Rubber Soul)
  5. Day Tripper (single — double-A side with “We Can Work It Out”)

This is the one everyone remembers as initially having the famous “butcher” cover, from the photo session described earlier. Some have speculated that the cover is the Beatles’ commentary on Capitol “butchering” their albums for the American market, but it was really just avant-garde surrealism on the part of the photographer. (The Beatles had no say in which of their songs went on U.S. albums, let alone what cover photo was used.) Whitaker designed the shot as part of a larger social-commentary photo essay that he planned for the group called A Somnambulistic Adventure. It got no further than the first round of pics (the Beatles got bored with pretentious bullshit like that pretty quickly — at least in those days), and those photos were just added to their press kit with the hundreds of other band pictures. Someone in Capitol’s graphics department grabbed the photo from their files, either due to a dark sense of humor, or (more likely) figuring one picture of the group was as good as any other. It may have just been the most recent set on the pile. And off it went. 

Butcher

Anyway, about 60,000 “butcher” sleeves made it to distributors and radio stations (not quite to store shelves) before outcry over the “tasteless” cover art from said distributors and radio stations caused Capitol to recall the album at great expense, and issue it with a replacement cover (with bored-looking Beatles posed around a steamer trunk.) Some lucky folks decided to keep the butcher version instead of returning it to Capitol, and mint copies are worth a fortune. (A few thousand copies of the butcher cover made it into stores with the new cover simply pasted over it. It could be recovered through various painstaking methods. Those copies always sustained a little damage in the process, and are worth slightly less. My own vinyl copy has a little tear in the sleeve from me checking to see if the butcher cover was underneath, not realizing as a little kid I was the owner of a factory-fresh, circa-1983 reissue.)

The Paperback Writer / Rain single came out on May 30, 1966 in the U.S., and on June 10 in the UK

The British Revolver came out in the UK on August 5 with the following tracklist: Taxman / Eleanor Rigby / “I’m Only Sleeping” / Love You To / Here, There And Everywhere / Yellow Submarine / She Said She Said / Good Day Sunshine / “And Your Bird Can Sing” / For No One / “Doctor Robert” / I Want To Tell You / Got To Get You Into My Life / Tomorrow Never Knows.

It came out three days later in the U.S. The only alteration Capitol made was the removal of the three Lennon songs that had just come out on Yesterday And Today. The resulting American Revolver is very lopsided, a McCartney-heavy album (he also wrote the Ringo-sung “Yellow Submarine”), with Lennon represented by just two songs (even George got three), closing each of the album’s vinyl sides with a blast of proto-psychedelic weirdness. 

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Revolver (August 8, 1966)

  1. Taxman
  2. Eleanor Rigby
  3. Love You To
  4. Here, There And Everywhere
  5. Yellow Submarine
  6. She Said She Said
  1. Good Day Sunshine
  2. For No One
  3. I Want To Tell You
  4. Got To Get You Into My Life
  5. Tomorrow Never Knows

In a telling indication of the role reversal of the importance of albums and singles by this time, instead of putting a single on an album, Capitol released a single from the album. “Eleanor Rigby / Yellow Submarine” missed the top of the charts (barely), but when, in a spirit of experimentation, Parlophone also released the songs as a single, they got a #1 in Britain.

Unlike 1963 (in Britain), ‘64, and ‘65, there would be no end-of-year album in 1966. The Beatles were hard at work on what would become Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, which would not be ready until the following spring. To fill the void, Parlophone put all the A-sides of British singles to date (minus the first two, which were available on the Please Please Me album, and including the popular “Yesterday”…and for some reason, “Michelle”) on the Beatles’ first greatest hits collection — A Collection of Beatles Oldies, which undoubtedly nestled under many a British Christmas tree. They even threw in “Bad Boy,” establishing the tradition of a greatest hits album including a previously unreleased “bonus track.” The U.S. market went Beatle-less that December. (A stereo acetate of their ‘64 and ‘65 concerts at the Hollywood Bowl was made in late September, seemingly for a live album, but the idea was dropped for the moment. It eventually came out in 1977.)

In early 1967, their original recording contract with EMI expired. In renegotiating a new one, they now had the clout to make absolutely sure that Capitol Records would release their albums with the same packaging and track listing that they had in Britain in no uncertain terms, unless they gave their specific approval. This was their art, dammit, and it was not just commerce for them. EMI agreed to the new deal..

Thus ended Capitol’s slicing and dicing of Beatles albums for the American market. When Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in June, it was the first time a Beatles album made it across the Atlantic unaltered. (If Capitol were still cutting up albums, and I were in charge of Pepper, I would dump the dated, weepy melodrama “She’s Leaving Home” with its Mike Leander [not George Martin!]-arranged strings, and the dippy “Lovely Rita” and replace them with “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” both of which were originally intended for the album. Just my two cents.)

Now if they put out a stand-alone single, it was a stand-alone single in the U.S. as well. And there were three stand-alone singles in 1967:

Penny Lane / Strawberry Fields Forever (February)

All You Need Is Love / Baby, You’re A Rich Man (July)

Hello, Goodbye / I Am The Walrus (November)

After Pepper, their next project was Magical Mystery Tour, a surreal, largely improvised, self-made psychedelic hot mess of a TV movie which ran on the BBC on December 26. It bombed, and was not widely seen in the U.S. until the home video era, but the music from it, as usual, would be in wide demand — Magical Mystery Tour, The Fool On The Hill, Flying, Blue Jay Way, Your Mother Should Know, and I Am The Walrus. 

The six songs from the TV movie were not enough to fill an album, so Parlophone put them out in the UK in a very awkward format — a double-EP. It sold well enough, but it was the sort of thing that wouldn’t work at all in the U.S.

This time, at the end of 1967, when Capitol issued a U.S.-only album, it was based on a relatively decent idea: A full-length album, with all the TV movie songs on one side, and all the 1967 singles rounded up on the other. Since this went out under the terms of their new contract, the Beatles did grudgingly agree to the expanded packaging, and accepted the realities of the American market, where the movie was not aired and a double-EP would be commercially risky. (They were particularly miffed about the inclusion of the pre-Sgt. Pepper “Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever” single.)

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Magical Mystery Tour (November 27, 1967)

  1. Magical Mystery Tour (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  2. The Fool On The Hill (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  3. Flying (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  4. Blue Jay Way (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  5. Your Mother Should Know (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP)
  6. I Am The Walrus (Magical Mystery Tour double-EP and “Hello, Goodbye” B-side)
  1. Hello, Goodbye (single)
  2. Strawberry Fields Forever (single — double A-side with “Penny Lane”)
  3. Penny Lane (single — double A-side with “Strawberry Fields Forever”)
  4. Baby, You’re A Rich Man (B-side to “All You Need Is Love”)
  5. All You Need Is Love (single)

The album was so successful that EMI eventually issued it in Britain in 1976, and it’s been part of the “official” album canon ever since, the old double-EP long forgotten. The Beatles themselves eventually warmed up to it. John Lennon even pronounced it his favorite Beatles album “because it’s so weird.” (He went back and forth between this and the White Album.)

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.2: More On The Beatles’ U.S. Capitol Albums

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

Continuing our in-depth examination of how Capitol Records handled the Beatles’ output in the U.S.A…

Tracks as yet “un-albumized” by Capitol will appear in bold, even if they’ve had a Capitol single release.

The Beatles had gone into the studio from February 25 to March 1, 1964 to finish their next single and the songs that would be featured in their film A Hard Day’s Night. They got under way by completing work on Can’t Buy Me Love, which they had started in EMI’s Paris studios during their residency at the Olympia Theatre the month before. It was definitely planned for inclusion in the film, but released as a single well before the film’s release. That way, the film could boast an already-proven hit song on its soundtrack. The single’s B-side “You Can’t Do That” was recorded as well. Its possible inclusion in the film was not assured, and it was snapped up by Second Album’s compilers. (In fact, a “You Can’t Do That” segment was filmed for the final concert sequence, but cut.) The songs intended for performance sequences in the movie were also recorded at these sessions — And I Love Her, I Should Have Known Better, Tell Me Why, If I Fell, I’m Happy Just To Dance With You, along with possible stand-alone British single “Long Tall Sally” and “I Call Your Name” which were quickly shipped stateside to be on Second Album.

The Beatles filmed A Hard Day’s Night through March and April under the working title Beatlemania. The film’s much-improved final title was thought of (based on a line in a Lennon poem, in turn based on expression of Ringo’s), and UA producer Walter Shenson asked the band to come up with a song to match. A Hard Day’s Night was rush-recorded towards the end of film shooting on April 16.

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United Artists had no claim over the soundtrack’s release in the UK. As far as Parlophone was concerned, A Hard Day’s Night was first and foremost the Beatles’ third album, and a soundtrack by happenstance. But what they’d recorded so far would only fill one side of an LP. Parlophone needed side two…and Richard Lester indicated he needed one more song to finish off the film.

So from June 1-4, 1964 (after a well-earned break for most of May), the Beatles went back into the studio and recorded I’ll Cry Instead (the track they planned to give Lester), Any Time At All, Things We Said Today, When I Get Home, I’ll Be Back, and two covers: Ringo singing Carl Perkins’ Matchbox, and John tearing through Larry Williams’ Slow Down. (The raucous, wild-man Williams was considered New Orleans’ answer to Little Richard, and was a long-standing Beatles favorite.)

I’ll Cry Instead was dispatched to Lester, busy in the editing room, and UA made careful note of its inclusion. When Parlophone was prepping the British version of the album, they discovered if they included the B-side “You Can’t Do That” and dropped the two cover songs, making the overall album one track shorter (at 13 songs), they could call it an all-original album — every track by Lennon-McCartney!

As they held off releasing the album until the film was ready, Parlophone decided to fill BeatlesLongTallSallyEPthe demand for new Beatles product by expanding the potential “Long Tall Sally” single into an EP — an “extended play” four-song 45-rpm, a format that was quite popular in Britain but never caught on in the States.

The Beatles’ EP Long Tall Sally, featuring “Long Tall Sally” (from the U.S. Second Album) “I Call Your Name” (likewise), and the two covers cut from the album, Matchbox and Slow Down, was released in Britain on June 19. 

UA wasn’t scheduled to release the film A Hard Day’s Night in the U.S. until August 11, but they were getting antsy to cash in on the soundtrack, so they put it out super early, on June 26. They had distribution rights only to the eight songs actually in the film, so they created a full-length album by adding four segments from George Martin’s score, which were orchestral re-workings of other Beatles songs.

  1. A Hard Day’s Night
  2. Tell Me Why

    Hard_Days7_album_cover

    NOT Capitol! United Artists

  3. I’ll Cry Instead 
  4. “I Should Have Known Better” (orch.)
  5. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You
  6. “And I Love Her” (orch.)
  1. I Should Have Known Better
  2. If I Fell
  3. And I Love Her 
  4. “Ringo’s Theme (This Boy)” (orch.)
  5. Can’t Buy Me Love
  6. “A Hard Day’s Night” (orch.)

UA put the soundtrack out so early, I’ll Cry Instead remained on the album even though Lester dropped the song from the film at the last minute. (He didn’t think it was high-energy enough to match the action sequences it was intended for — either the frolicking-in-the-field segment, or the police chase segment — so he just used Can’t Buy Me Love twice. No one seemed to mind.)

So…EMI controlled these songs, and gave UA certain rights to them in the U.S., but what did these rights entail? It certainly seems the rights were not exclusive, because Capitol sure as hell went ahead and released them in various formats that summer. (And EMI eventually bought out the UA catalog in 1979, so all subsequent U.S. reissues of A Hard Day’s Night would be under the Capitol banner.)

The best explanation I’ve found is from the Beatles Music History website (great info, but the usual classic-rock website eyesore): Capitol could use the eight tracks in question — as long as they did not explicitly refer to or advertise whatever they put them on as a “motion picture soundtrack.” With that caveat, Capitol now had some choices to make as far as their third Beatles album was concerned. 

The British version of A Hard Day’s Night came out as the Beatles third Parlophone R-649306-1391254571-9166.jpegalbum on July 10, 1964, with the following track list: A Hard Day’s Night / I Should Have Known Better / If I Fell / I’m Happy Just To Dance With You / And I Love Her / Tell Me Why / Can’t Buy Me Love / Any Time At All / I’ll Cry Instead / Things We Said Today / When I Get Home / “You Can’t Do That” / I’ll Be Back.

Several writers have remarked that the Beatles’ musical growth was so rapid that the difference between Parlophone’s A Hard Day’s Night side one (recorded mostly in February) was quite noticeable from side two (recorded mostly in June).

A single can’t be a “soundtrack,” right? Capitol figured as much, and put out A Hard Day’s Night / I Should Have Known Better as a single on July 13. (Parlophone put out the title song as a single in the UK too — the “no singles on albums” rule in Britain didn’t apply when the singles were tied to the marketing of their films.)

Capitol desperately needed a third Beatles album out for the summer market. The six songs from the first three British singles, and the ten songs recorded for the first British album waaay back in early ‘63 were still part of Capitol’s legal wrangle with Vee-Jay Records (see previous entry.) Capitol had enough muscle to use them if they wanted to (and occasionally did), but they still regarded this stuff as not really worth the trouble.

That leaves the two German-language songs Sie Liebt Dich and Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand recorded in January ‘64 for the German market (an experiment not to be repeated), Matchbox and Slow Down from the British Long Tall Sally EP, and, technically, everything on the newly-released British album A Hard Day’s Night. 

It was immediately decided that A Hard Day’s Night would not be included. Capitol had already capitalized on it as a single, and it skirted too close to UA’s “soundtrack” turf. Its Capitol B-side I Should Have Known Better was tossed, too, for no reason I can see. Maybe it was too closely associated with the movie’s title track due it’s being on the single’s B-side. Nor was Can’t Buy Me Love or I’ll Be Back considered. I have no idea why. Even with those omissions, that still left just enough gas in the tank. 

The-Beatles---U-S--Albums---Something-New 

Something New (July 20, 1964)

  1. I’ll Cry Instead (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  2. Things We Said Today (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  3. Any Time At All (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  4. When I Get Home (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  5. Slow Down (Long Tall Sally EP)
  6. Matchbox (Long Tall Sally EP)
  1. Tell Me Why (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  2. And I Love Her (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  3. I’m Happy Just To Dance With You (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  4. If I Fell (UK A Hard Day’s Night)
  5. Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand (German-language single on EMI’s Odeon Records, 2/4/64)

The cover is another shot from the Ed Sullivan appearance. The title seems a touch ironic as almost all of side two had been available to U.S. record buyers on the UA soundtrack for almost a month. The soundtrack kept Something New out of the #1 album spot, showing that the fans drew no distinction between UA and Capitol product.

And I can kind of follow Capitol’s logic in terms of song choice through this whole process…until the end of side two here. Why the hell did they include “Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand” when they still had other stuff to choose from? I can only guess as to why better options weren’t chosen instead. I’ll Be Back is a brilliant song, and would have made an infinitely better choice. I suppose it may have been a little too downbeat for an album that already included melancholy songs like “If I Fell” and “Things We Said Today.” Capitol was still trying to sell the Beatles based on excitement (!!) after all. Probably someone at Capitol thought the German song would be a fun novelty for the kids. (They used to put shit like that on early Beach Boys albums all the time). Actually, anything from the ‘63 sessions would have been a better call than that Teutonic atrocity. Continue reading

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 3.1: Mono and The Beatles’ U.S. Albums

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

“‘Revolution’ was a heavy record [in mono]…stereo turned it into a piece of ice cream.” — J. Lennon.

Hmmm…no mono Beatles on Spotify? Mono Beach Boys, sure. Mono (early) Stones, even. But no mono Beatles.

As I was making my playlists, it came to my attention that the Beatles catalog on Spotify was available only in stereo. This is not a big deal to most people. Two separate channels of sound emerging from two speakers (or headphones or earbuds or “airpods”) to create a kind of audio widescreen is the primary way music has been listened to for over fifty years now. I was certainly reared on stereo recordings of the Beatles (via their American albums, see below.) But that wasn’t always the case, and when you’re talking about recording artists of the caliber of the Beatles, there should at least be a conversation about what kind of mixing better suits their music.

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Mixing a song is a vital part of the recording process. Vocals and instruments are initially recorded across multiple tracks of audio tape, and a good mix ensures the sounds are properly balanced against each other. You can write a great song, perform it flawlessly in the studio…but a bad mix can ruin it. The Beatles and their producer George Martin lavished hours of attention on the monaural (single audio channel) mixes of their songs, because that’s how 90% of their initial audience would hear the music until about 1968 or so. Through one-speaker portable record players, one-speaker transistor radios, one-speaker car radios, one-speaker jukeboxes. “Stereo” in the 1960s was for classical music freaks, jazzbos, and “hi-fi” fanatics with record players housed in polished wooden cabinets the size of Buicks, and shelves groaning with “LPs.” The Beatles did release their stuff in stereo, but stereo mixing was usually a hurried afterthought. The Beatles did not bother to attend their stereo mixing sessions. Even George Martin would sometimes skip out, leaving it in the hands of assistants.

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1960s — what mono meant
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1960s — what stereo meant

As stereo pushed out mono by the end of the ‘60s, the Beatles’ catalog stayed in print, selling quite well, and demand kept the record plants pressing out vinyl. As a kid, I was still buying factory-fresh, brand new copies of Beatles albums in record stores as late as 1988. All stereo by then, and the vinyl LP’s center label was no longer the classic Capitol Records black ringed by a rainbow, but an ugly, bruised purple (indicating a re-issue pressed between 1977 and 1983). 

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1960s Capitol label and 1977-83 reissue label (supposedly a “throwback” to pre-1960s 78 rpm labels)

Work had been done on more careful stereo re-mixing in dribs and drabs beginning in the late 60s and through the 70s, and by the time I heard the stuff in the 80s, it sounded fine. Some horrible over-separation had been fixed, Dave Dexter’s dated, splashy reverb (again, see below) had been cleaned up, and stereo is how my ears were raised on Beatles music. (My generation of re-issues had “New Improved Full Dimensional Stereo” written proudly across the top of the jacket). When the Beatles’ catalog was reissued on compact disc in 1987, the stereo versions of the UK albums were made official canon, and anything still out there in mono — along with the old American albums — vanished. (The Beatles themselves still didn’t like the fresh stereo mixes the CDs were given. They’ve been re-mastered and improved since, but if you were to ask the Fab Four themselves — mono forever, baby.)

In the early 2000s, demand for the release of the original mono mixes by Beatles purists grew, and their wish was granted. In 2009, The Beatles in Mono CD box set was released. Every song re-mastered in their original, glorious mono. Even as a 13-disc collection that sold for as much as my first car, it made #40 on the album charts. I didn’t rush out and buy it, but I knew someone who did, and he was nice enough to loan it to me for a good long time. And…I still prefer stereo. I guess I’m a philistine. But for playlist-assembly purposes, it would have been nice for Spotify to offer the option. What’s more frustrating is that I’ve heard that the mono stuff was on Spotify briefly, but removed. (And if you think my stuff is over-detailed, at least one entire book has been written about the differences between the Beatles’ mono and stereo mixes.) 

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Another thing now available on CD but not on Spotify is the early Beatles albums as issued in the U.S. by Capitol Records.

The Beatles’ American albums on Capitol were often quite different from the “official” British releases on Parlophone from 1964 through ‘66, and were pretty much the only way American consumers could experience the band’s pre-1967 material for over twenty years. They are not included on Spotify. Like the mono thing, this doesn’t bother most listeners. The British albums were how the band intended their stuff to be presented anyway, and the group was generally horrified by Capitol’s seemingly careless re-sequencing and repackaging.

How did Capitol Records’ Beatles discography come about, and how and why did they make the decisions they did? It’s complicated, and sometimes their choices are logical, and the results work. Sometimes they seem clueless and totally wrong-headed.

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 2: Making Playlists

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time (see previous entry for more on those tasteless wretches) via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds…keep in mind, these are unvarnished opinions, and chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions, with a few editorial tweaks to keep it semi-coherent…

So I’m doing a lot of listening and making a lot of playlists. I suppose I should start by giving you my definition of a playlist.

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A decades-themed “mixtape” on Spotify

To my mind, a playlist is dedicated to a single band or artist, and is a microcosm of that artist’s entire discography. Greatest hits, obviously, but also personal-favorite Deep Cuts, maybe a few live tracks, and some other odds & sods, like something that popped up on a movie soundtrack but nowhere else. This definition dates from a pre-streaming era when you had to boil your physical-media music collection down to make it portable — either onto blank cassettes, or blank CDs after a certain point in music-copying history.

One of the advantages of making playlists from streaming platforms is that there’s no time limit, which expands your options. On the other hand, I do remember enjoying the challenge of a time limit. An 80-minute CD-R or 90-minute cassette imposed boundaries to work within. It was all about maximizing space. I remember being appalled when WH used up fifteen minutes of a Hendrix compilation with the blues workout “Voodoo Child.” (“And I’d do it again,” he asserted when asked about it recently.) And if you ran out of space for a really good artist with a lengthy career? You did Volume 2, Volume 3…

Now let’s draw a distinction between “playlists” and “mixes” (which I will almost always refer to here as “mixtapes”). 

Playlists are a reference work, a song-based encyclopedia entry. Mixtapes are more like literature. They can be thematic, or mood-based. They take you on a journey. You can do a single artist mixtape, but they tend to be multi-artist. Mixtapes are finite, they are a finished work. Playlists can be endlessly tinkered with, revised, and updated, especially when you’re as neurotic about them as I am.

I use mixtape in the broadest possible sense, of course. The term obviously originated in the days of the cassette tape, but for over twenty years now, all of my “mixtapes” have been burned CDs or made online. (And muddying the waters a bit, streaming services generically call any list or mix you make a “playlist.”)

If you’re going analog, a 60-minute cassette, thirty minutes a side, are best for mixes. Mixtapes are often intended to be given to someone else, so you need to keep it short and tight. Don’t want to bore the person you’re trying to impress. You get a slightly better sound quality from a shorter tape, too, and they’re not as likely to break or get tangled. The 90-minute cassette was my standard workhorse for making artist playlists. 120-minute cassettes were available, too, but they were just too fragile and tended to warble a little. Some people swore by Maxell, I was a TDK man. Solid quality at a slightly lower price.

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Sure, you can swap mixtapes with your music-nerd buddies, but I’ve found that mixtapes are almost exclusively made for the object of your affection. This is certainly not an original observation.

My wife lamented awhile back that I made her four mixtapes over the first year we were dating, and then no more. My sister-in-law chimed in said the identical scenario went down between her and my wife’s brother. Mixtape-making for your significant other usually ceases right when cohabitation begins. Mixtapes are supposed to inspire them to think about you when you’re not around. Once you’re snoring next to them on a nightly basis, and they can hear your frankly alarming bathroom noises on the other side of the door, mixtapes seem a tad superfluous. (And new cars don’t even have CD players!)

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R.I.P.

The last time I did something similar to this Spotify project was before streaming became a thing. I spent a summer about ten years ago making iPod playlists. I had ripped my thousand or so CDs into mp3s, and supplemented my collection by flying the BitTorrent Jolly Roger. (I am a reformed man, and now duly pay for my streaming services.)

But iTunes (sorry, “Apple Music”) has been gleefully pissing in the Cheerios of old-school music fans for a number of years now. Every iTunes update actually making the interface objectively worse? Good move, Apple. Blithely “discontinuing” their 160-gig, physical-click wheel iPods? Screw you, Apple. Way to make me hate you forever. So I dumped those shallow Cupertino grassfuckers and started giving my money to the humble Swedes of Spotify Premium. 

So the Spotify Playlists of the 2020 Quarantine were preceded by the 2010 iPod Playlists of the BitTorrent Boom…there was another cycle of making “playlists” ten years before that — right when CD burners became an affordable option — when I was happily listening through my CD collection on a battery-sucking Discman with sponge-covered headphones, and filling Case Logic carrying cases with artist-themed CD-Rs made on my PC. 

(Hear that, Apple? On my PC! And who really preferred super-douchey toolbag Justin Long to nice, earnest John Hodgman in those commercials?) 

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Not coincidentally, I switched to Spotify the day after Tom Petty died, and I immediately poured my grief into a Petty playlist. I added other playlists over the next couple of years when the mood struck me or I was bored at work. I put together some obvious favorites (Beatles, Stones, Kinks, Dylan), and some good-but-not-exactly-favorites because that’s what interested me that day (Queen, Steve Earle, a Faces/Small Faces mashup that I’m pretty damn proud of). 

Now I’ve decided to put my socially-distant, non-work time (which is copious) to use filling in the gaps in my Favorite Artists playlists. No Springsteen? There is now! Green Day, which everyone seems to think I like way more than I actually do? They’re on the to-do list. Johnny Cash and Prince are going to be daunting, but I haven’t worn pants since St. Patrick’s Day, so I might as well plunge in. Next week, maybe. Or in two or three weeks. Time has lost a lot of meaning.

What’s my method? I’m so glad you asked.  Continue reading

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The Spotify Chronicles, Vol. 1: The Institute of Idle Time (A Re-Introduction)

Dateline: Davis, CA. COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” quarantine, March 18 through…?, 2020

The “Spotify Chronicles” were/are cobbled together out of random music-based thoughts I shared with the Institute of Idle Time via instant messaging as I “worked” from home, or typed piecemeal into a constantly-open Google Doc late at night as I was drinking old-fashioneds and plugged into my earbuds listening to Spotify…so some of it is a little venomous (talking to my fellow Idle Timers brings out my feisty side) and a little more rambling than usual (imagine!), but keep in mind, chunks of the following are literally copied-and-pasted out of IM discussions…

And, for the first time in Holy Bee of Ephesus history, this piece has a co-author. My friend and Idle Time collaborator for almost twenty years, MMDG, will be weighing in with his recollections. (In our written shorthand, we always refer to each other to this day by initials, like some kind of music-nerd Cosa Nostra…I’ve changed my actual initials to “HBE” here for clarity purposes.)

If you were to dig back into this website’s early history, say 2007-2010, you’d find me mentioning the Institute of Idle Time quite a bit. Since they’ve made a bit of a resurgence in my day-to-day life (due to the sheltering-in-place), and are an important part of the chronicles to come, I thought I’d re-introduce them. 

Idle Time Logo invert-01I co-founded the Institute of Idle Time in early 2002 with two people — WH and MMDG — who were my co-workers at the time. (Actually, I’ve known WH since I was 20 — almost literally a kid.) It was a jokey name for what we did in our spare moments away from being rookie middle-school teachers, which was talk about music, argue passionately about music (we have very different tastes), and make ranked and themed lists of music. 

Once we abandoned our Pitchfork-style decimal-based rating system, the Idle Time ranking process became a drawn-out and brutal ritual of MMDG’s invention we call Rock & Roll Roulette. The basics are simple, but the nuances and subtleties amount to sustained psychological warfare. Depending on the number of albums or songs we’re working through, it can take days, weeks, or months. It can be done in person (where it is the most fun, especially over several beers) or online (thanks to shared spreadsheets and polling apps).

We used to compile songs into individual mixes (or entire series of mixes) to share with just each other via burned CD-Rs. Then we started collaborating on group mixes for public consumption, and gave away CDs of our lists to anyone who was interested (they made great stocking stuffers and wedding gifts). Beginning in 2003, the CDs got elaborate — glossy covers and extensive liner notes (“blurbs” in IT-speak). We truly became a collective at that point.

Let’s hear from MMDG:

“Adrift on the wide-open internet waters was a bounty of images, mp3s, and treasure-map signposts towards albums, singles, and recordings that we never knew existed. It was a grand time to be a pirate. HBE had his Your Music Sucks series, which seemed to specifically target my indifference towards bands like Son Volt and Supergrass. I adopted The Promise Ring’s “Make Me a Mixtape” as a battlecry for any number of mix-CDs. We mail-ordered labels and booklets in bulk.

It was WH’s What I Heard compilation that gave real direction to our operation. Following his lead, we shared our favorite albums with one another just prior to winter break in 2002. Initially, these discs included songs from 2000 and 2001. That was before the project took on radioactive parameters and, screeching with mathematical fury, threatened to destroy Tokyo to the hundredth decimal point.

idle-time-002We went from friends, happy to find common ground in something like 02’s Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots (HBE: I actually didn’t like it all that much past the first two songs, I think I was still playing nice), to bitter rivals, arguing vehemently over whether or not 03’s Hail to the Thief belonged on a year-end celebration of the best music. (HBE: It didn’t.) We were doing one list, one compilation, and affixing one name to the glossy inkjet-printed booklet: The Institute of Idle Time’s Top 20 Records of the Year. I even had the audacity (or foresight) to stick a little ® on there, even though I shamelessly stole the Jack White artwork from someone on the internet.

The cute pseudonyms were born in the 2003 CD booklet too. I think subconsciously all this rampant piracy made us a little nervous. How were we to know that not even a decade later intellectual property rights would hardly mean a damn and the world wide web would turn into a playground of digital socialism? So we hid cleverly behind the impervious anonymity of our own actual initials, confident that this would foil any FBI plot to root out felonious file-sharers and make an example of them. We had our own paper-and-staple usernames way before any online avatars came into being.”

The Institute drifted out of workplace lunch breaks and into our social lives. IT06Membership expanded and became fluid — different members have come and gone over the years (including myself, as we’ll see), but it always seems to hover around ten. 

At a certain point, several years in, a healthy portion of the group was made up of a handful of former students from our first year or two of teaching (we were only decade and change older than them, and they were the frequent, sometimes puzzled, recipients of those early CD-Rs).

This was the Idle Time Junior Division…still thought of that way even though they’re all now in their thirties. For those keeping track, the three original members are referred to as the Elder Idlers. The Elder Idlers plus the longest-standing member of the Junior Division (known by the moniker RF, who joined as an enthusiastic mascot while still in high school) are known as the Core Four.

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The Core Four looking like sad pandas, posing in front of our favorite record store that went out of business in December 2006

What self-respecting music junkie of a certain age can resist a lavish CD box set? We designed a pretty elaborate one (limited-edition, of course) for our fifth anniversary in 2007. An unprecedented two discs of the collectively-chosen “best of 2007” (featuring Spoon, Arcade Fire, the Shins, LCD Soundsystem, the White Stripes, Radiohead, Vampire Weekend, and many, many more), and including four more discs, each individually curated by a member of the Institute. (Mine sadly included a Velvet Revolver track, but I stand by everything else.)

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You don’t still have your copy?

The cover art of the box was intended to be a parody of the Hives’ The Black and White Album (see below), a timeless reference and sure never to date itself at all.

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Our version was a little off. We did what we could with the matching outfits. I normally keep my jowly double-chin covered with at least a goatee if not a full beard, but I took one for the team and shaved down to just a skeevy-looking mustache to replicate the cleft-chin glory of Hives bassist Dr. Matt Destruction.

I tried to capture his intense stare, looking straight ahead as fiercely as I could. Of course, I should have been staring straight at the camera lens…which was slightly to my right. Oh, well.

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I had to walk around looking like that for two weeks until my goatee grew back.

We self-published a few zines, and our magnum opus — a big, glossy book called Decades: A Tribute to Our 400 Favorite Albums of the Last 50 Years, which gave rise to the Roulette process. Continue reading

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The Holy Bee Recommends, #20B: The Byrds (Mark II) Discography

Prologue: West Saugerties, NY. Summer 1967

The instruments and recording equipment are set up in the basement of the big pink rental house on a rural woodsy road, just as they had been for several weeks. The intention is to make demo tapes, and the recording rig is simple — a Nagra tape recorder, an Ampex mixer, and three microphones (although many decades later this set-up will be hotly disputed by audiophiles on internet forums.) One by one, the band wanders in. Garth Hudson settles in behind his Lowrey organ, Richard Manuel parks himself on the piano bench, or maybe the drum stool. Rick Danko and Robbie Robertson strap on a bass and electric guitar, respectively. At the center of the group of informally arranged musicians, with a short haircut and a 12-string acoustic, is Bob Dylan. Dylan has not recorded or toured since the previous spring. A motorcycle accident sidelined him, and the enigmatic songwriter decided to use his injuries (the extent of which is shrouded in mystery) as an excuse to go off the grid for awhile. Now he’s ready to dip his foot in the water again, but he’s going to do it his way. Not with a new tour, or album, but with a batch of original songs…intended to be given away to other artists.

Hudson hits “record” on the tape recorder, and Dylan begins tentatively strumming. The musicians, who were Dylan’s backing band on his last tour, try to anticipate where this brand-new composition is going. The bass and organ start fumbling along. Dylan doesn’t seem too sure, either. He leans into the microphone, and lets loose a stream of nonsense…

“Now look here, dear soup, you’d best feed the cats/The cats need feeding and you’re the one to do it/Get your hat, feed the cat/You ain’t goin’ nowhere…”

The real lyrics are soon filled in and the song eventually comes together, as do several others…Dylan’s manager Albert Grossman strategically “leaks” the final tape of fourteen finished demos (out of dozens recorded) to various artists and producers that autumn, and gets his adding machine ready to tally the song publishing windfall that’s sure to come.

The backing musicians (with the addition of drummer Levon Helm) become known as The Band and are soon signed to Capitol Records.

A copy of the tape ends up in the possession of one Chris Hillman…

The first song from these “basement tapes” to be made public is “The Mighty Quinn (Quinn the Eskimo),” recorded by the British group Manfred Mann and released on January 12, 1968. It goes to #10.

Dylan, in the vanguard as usual, sends up the signal flare that is the first indication of a sea change in popular music. Psychedelic excess would soon be old hat, and the traditional sounds of American pre-rock roots music from the first half of the 20th century would be the guiding inspiration for many well-known acts in 1968, and into 1969 and the 70s. Dylan finally breaks his public silence by putting out an album, with no publicity, in the final days of 1967 — a modest collection of archaic-sounding original folk and country songs called John Wesley Harding that sounds nothing like the speed-freak rock of his previous few albums. None of the tracks were from that summer’s basement tapes.

The Byrds’ Notorious Byrd Brothers drops a mere two weeks later… still steeped in trippy experimentation and sonic fripperies, and if Roger McGuinn has his way, more of the same is to come…a precocious Georgia millionaire’s son and Harvard dropout named Gram Parsons would change all that…

The Byrds had changed management in the autumn of 1967. Jim Dickson was out, Larry Spector (no relation to the gun-happy record producer) was in. Larry Spector also managed a band called the International Submarine Band, led by Gram Parsons. The visionary Parsons was a walking music encyclopedia (especially country), and had a dream of creating the perfect blend of old-school country and gospel-inflected soul/R&B. He called it, somewhat loftily, “Cosmic American Music.” The ISB recorded an album that was currently sitting in the vaults of LHI Records, waiting for release. The ever restless Parsons, like David Crosby the indulged son of an immensely wealthy family, ran out of patience and bailed on the band, looking for his next big opportunity.

Roger McGuinn had an ambitious vision, too. He wanted to explore the more experimental path indicated by some of the material on the last few albums. His interest in modern jazz was joined by a fascination with the possibilities of the newly-invented Moog synthesizer. If McGuinn followed his muse to its full fruition, the Byrds would be pioneers of a new genre — a spacy, science fiction-influenced blend of electronic music and jazz. But fate had other plans.

McGuinn knew the recently reduced Byrds couldn’t pull off his new ideas as a trio. He wanted to add a keyboard player, and asked manager Larry Spector if he knew of any. Gram Parsons, wasn’t a keyboard player per se, but he could handle almost any instrument passably, and Spector felt he would be a good fit for the band. Parsons joined the Byrds in February 1968. McGuinn wasted no time in explaining his ambitious plans for the next recording project — a massive double album, two dozen songs, following a musical chronology. The first few tracks would be the old-time string band music of 1920s Appalachia, then the material would gradually morph into modern folk and country, and the album would close with a sequence speculating on the future, featuring space-age electronica.

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L.A. Cowboys on Sunset, early ’68: Kelley, Parsons, McGuinn, Hillman

Gram Parsons didn’t care a fig for McGuinn’s electric space jazz, and instead raised the idea of a start-to-finish traditional country album. He managed to keep a straight face while convincing McGuinn that country audiences were incredibly loyal, and would provide a hardcore fan base for years to come. McGuinn, blasted by the full force of Parson’s enthusiasm (which could be formidable while it lasted), swallowed the whopping mistruth and agreed to put his concept album on hold for the time being. The Byrds would turn totally country. Hillman, the old bluegrass hand, gave the idea his full support. The 12-string Rickenbacker was put aside, Parsons mostly ditched his planned role on keyboards and joined McGuinn on acoustic guitar, and the group booked time in a Nashville studio to commence recording almost immediately. The only issue: McGuinn and Hillman had not written any new songs since Notorious, certainly none in their recently-chosen genre. No problem! Parsons had a couple of stellar originals in his back pocket. Traditional country and bluegrass covers could also fill the some of the space. And they had a secret weapon: the tape of Dylan demos, all of which could be easily adapted to the new style. 

Over the course of six days in early March, in the sterile confines of a usually regimented, disciplined song-factory studio in the heart of the country music capital, the Byrds burned their previous incarnation to the ground, and built a new one. With the sometimes-puzzled help of a few crew-cutted Nashville session pros (they didn’t know what to make of these shaggy, mystic West Coasters who seemed to take forever to pin down a take), the core of their new album came together. The session players went from bemusement to admiration, and all of them recall it as a happy experience. They remember the stodgy, fluorescent-lit Nashville studio growing hazy with pot smoke, red wine being passed around, and everyone having a grand time. In a surprise move, the Byrds capped off the week with a live appearance on none other but the famous Grand Ole Opry radio show, broadcast on WSM from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium. (You have to say “hallowed” before you mention the Ryman. It’s a rule of music writing, like using “jangly” for the Byrds, “enigmatic” for Dylan, and it’s always “the great” Hal Blaine.)

Before the appearance, the group had to grit their teeth through a hostile radio interview with WSM DJ Ralph Emery, who made clear his distaste for “hippies” and the counterculture movement, and was the mouthpiece for all the conservative Southerners who resented this long-haired rock group for invading their territory. He refused to play the just-recorded “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” on the air. The song is done in a solid country arrangement, but because it was penned by left-wing hero Bob Dylan (who applied his usual lyrical surrealism) and performed by a group of freaks, Emery received it with condescending disdain. “What’s the song about?” demanded Emery. McGuinn was honest: “I don’t know.” The Byrds could not leave the radio station fast enough. McGuinn and Parsons took their revenge by writing “Drug Store Truck Drivin’ Man” about Emery, holding him up as the epitome of every piss-ignorant racist redneck stereotype they could devise. (The song wouldn’t make it onto the new album, but it didn’t go away.)

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Onstage at the Ryman, Parsons front and center

They nervously took the stage at the Ryman on March 15, 1968, joined by pedal steel guitarist Lloyd Green. Kevin Kelley was denied the use of his full drum kit as per Opry tradition, and had to make do with a pair of brushes and a single snare. As they were introduced to a smattering of applause, there were some boos, jeers, and catcalls (“Tweet, tweet!” “Get a haircut!”). They launched into their first number, and actually won a large portion of the audience over with their sincere performance and clear affection for their newly-adopted genre. They had agreed ahead of time to cover Merle Haggard’s “Life in Prison” as their encore, and the MC announced that number to the live audience and over the airwaves. But then, in a Crosby-like display of hubris, Gram Parsons stepped to microphone and announced a change of plans — they would close with the Parsons original, “Hickory Wind.” The Opry brass were furious, and the group destroyed whatever goodwill they had earned with the rest of their performance. They were banned from future performances.

The newly-recorded album was also facing a crisis. Evidently, Gram Parsons was still under contract to LHI Records. There was a possibility that the tracks on which he sang lead might have to be re-recorded by McGuinn. The process to do just that began, then the legal disputes were suddenly settled. McGuinn cannily decided to trim Parson’s lead vocal appearances anyway. The newest Byrd originally sang lead on six of the eleven tracks, and McGuinn reduced it to three. The Byrds would not become the Gram Parsons Show on McGuinn’s watch. Despite being granted freedom to dictate the creative direction for a short while, the upstart had been schooled as to whose band it really was.

There was good news, though, as the new Byrds left Nashville and hit the road all that spring and early summer. They had finally stabilized as a live act, and turned in solid sets night after night. After ignoring their early hits during the last year with David Crosby, they reintroduced material like “Mr. Tambourine Man” and “Eight Miles High” as highlights of the first half of their concerts. Their country material, augmented by touring musicians Jaydee Maness on pedal steel and Doug Dillard on banjo, would be featured in the later portion. Parsons, so recently the dominant force in the recording studio, seemed to now accept his secondary status on stage, bouncing between electric piano and acoustic guitar, happily harmonizing on all the stuff that predated his time with the band, and only taking two or three lead vocals for himself. Perhaps he already had his eye on the door…

On a short U.K. trip that July, the Byrds socialized frequently with the Rolling Stones. Gram Parsons developed something of a man-crush on Keith Richards, trailing after him like an over-eager puppy and babbling non-stop about the virtues and sub-genres of country music. When word reached the Stones that the next stop on the Byrds’ touring itinerary was South Africa, Mick and Keith explained to the somewhat naive Parsons that playing to segregated audiences in an apartheid country was not cool. McGuinn, who had at various times worked closely with South African musicians such as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba, was encouraged by them to see the situation firsthand, and ignored the Stones’ judgement. When the plane left London for Johannesburg on July 9, 1968, Gram Parsons was not on it. He quit after having been a Byrd for less than five months.

But what a legacy he left them! The album he willed into existence through sheer force of personality came out on August 30. Sweetheart of the Rodeo not only signaled the birth of the second phase of the Byrds, it became the founding document of the country rock of the 70s and the alt-country movement of the 90s.

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